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Articles of 2005

Tony Ayala Jr.: The Best Prospect of All-Time

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Being a hot prospect in the contemporary world of boxing is inherently difficult. If a high profile prospect is fed an array of stiffs and tomato cans to pad his record, he’ll be criticized regardless of the fact that the fighter’s management is more blameworthy than the fighter himself. On the other side of the coin, if a prospect is traditionally inculcated in a difficult, character building apprenticeship, he’ll likely be criticized as well because more chinks will appear in the armor against tough opposition. High expectations are heaped on prospects today, and when expectations aren’t met, criticism is often disproportionately vicious.

Not long ago, Miguel Cotto and Jermain Taylor were two of the top prospects in boxing. Cotto currently holds the WBO junior welterweight title, and Taylor is poised for his first title shot against Bernard Hopkins. Cotto’s management developed his career and honed his skills in the time-honored manner of an old-fashioned apprenticeship. Cotto proved that he’s not a one-dimensional front runner in the process, and quickly ascended the ranks in the toughest division in boxing. In contrast, Taylor was brought along slowly in the modern and fashionable mode of low risk and high yield in the talent-anemic middleweight division.

Ironically, Cotto faces an intricate web of difficulty to prove himself as the top junior welterweight in the world. The competition is deep and stiff. Taylor’s task is also tremendously difficult, but less complex. Jermain cuts straight to the chase and needs to beat 40-year-old Bernard Hopkins to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. Taylor’s management waited for the right time to strike, and they think the time is now.

It’s difficult to assess who will have a more successful career in the long run. Boxing is a chaotic and often counterintuitive sport where old-fashioned values don’t necessarily equate to long term success. To be sure, in watching Cotto and Taylor in the ring, Cotto appears to be the more relaxed and seasoned fighter. He’s faced comparably more difficult opposition during the embryonic stages of his career. He’s also faced adversity more often than Taylor, and that will probably help him in high profile title fights down the road. With Taylor, we have more questions than answers. With Cotto, we have more answers than questions.

When I watched Cotto coming up the ranks as a prospect, he reminded me of several fighters, but his level of comfort in the ring was unusual for a young boxer in this era. It was refreshing to watch a fighter execute the fundamentals of the sport against hardened opposition. I hadn’t seen a prospect as comfortable in the ring as Cotto since watching former jr. middleweight prospect and contender Tony Ayala Jr. in the early 1980s. In my opinion, El Torito was the best prospect in boxing history. In the future, we’ll get to see the best of Cotto. Unfortunately, we never got to see the best of Ayala.

As Barry Tompkins once stated before one of Ayala’s early fights, Tony Ayala Jr. was born to be a fighter. Tony Ayala Sr. raised all four of his sons to be fighters. Besides El Torito, Mike became the most accomplished of the fighting Ayala brothers, and is best known for his classic ebb and flow war against Danny “Little Red” Lopez in The Ring magazine ’s 1979 “Fight of the Year.”

El Torito started boxing at the age of 5 after watching his brothers in a Texas amateur tournament. From the age of 8, Tony never lost a fight, and won multiple amateur titles while compiling nearly 150 amateur bouts.

Perhaps more important than Ayala’s stellar amateur record was the reputation he gained in sparring with professional fighters. At the age of 14 in 1977, Ayala engaged in a famous sparring match with welterweight champion Jose “Pipino” Cuevas.

Cuevas was known for being hard on sparring partners. Indeed, a tough, quick former amateur fighter from the east coast who once trained me actually turned down the opportunity to spar with Cuevas at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles in the late 1970s after watching Cuevas concuss and bludgeon two sparring partners in the gym. Ayala was fearless, and his sparring session in San Antonio with Cuevas is still the stuff of legends.

In 1992, Knockout Magazine, which was published three times per year by G.C. London Publishing Associates, released a gem of a publication about knockout artists. Included in the edition were profiles of Bob Foster, Earnie Shavers, Alfonso Zamora, Pipino Cuevas, George Foreman, and Tony Ayala Jr. Superb boxing scribe Phil Berger did a great piece on Ayala entitled “The Odyssey of Tony Ayala Jr.: The Rage of the Fighter, The Destruction of The Man.”  Berger perfectly captured the essence and action of El Torito’s infamous sparring session with Cuevas.

Berger clearly pointed out that Tony Sr. was reluctant to allow his teenage son in with a brutal punching champion like Cuevas, but Tony Jr. contended that Cuevas wouldn't be able to hurt him, and insisted on the sparring match. Berger describes Tony Sr.’s version of the action after his son talked him into arranging the match.

“Well, word got out. The gym was packed that day with spectators. And for the first two rounds, it was nip and tuck, man against boy. At the end of the second round, I asked him, ‘Torito, is he hurting you?’ He says no to me, ‘he may be a world champion, but he ain’t sh** to me.’ And he went out and kicked his butt the next round.”

Naturally, a father might embellish on his son’s accomplishments, but Berger was careful and astute to mention that Tony Sr. wasn’t the only person in the gym who saw it that way.

“San Antonio fight promoter, Tony Padilla, who has had his differences with the Ayalas, was there the afternoon Cuevas and young Tony went at it. He remembers Lupe Sanchez, Pipino’s manager, saying to Cuevas afterward, ‘Aren’t you ashamed — a 14-year-old boy doing that to you?’ And Pipino, Padilla said, was muttering ‘Increible, increible’ – which is incredible in English.”

When Ayala turned pro at the age of 17 in 1980, he was touted as one of “Tomorrow’s Champions.” Ayala’s stablemate and sparring partner, Bobby Czyz, was perhaps the most marketed of the young prospects climbing the ranks, but Ayala was by far the most precocious and talented. Ayala had the ability to slip and counter to the head and body unlike many top contenders despite his tender age. More importantly, Ayala faced adversity early in his career, and responded like an old school champion when he was hurt and on the brink of defeat.

In Ayala’s ninth pro fight, he faced dangerous, deceptive, and unpredictable Mario Maldonado. Maldonado sported a mediocre record of 11-7-1, but possessed tremendous punching power and a style that could rattle well-rounded, battletested opponents.

In the first round, Maldonado took the fight to the 18-year-old Ayala. Ayala characteristically responded with beautifully executed counter hooks to the head and body. As the round commenced, Maldonado was surprisingly getting the better of the exchanges. After trading salvos in the center of the ring, Maldonado was able to land a combination that backed Ayala against the ropes. Under fire, Ayala attempted to retaliate, but was caught with a wicked right to the temple that froze him and had him out on his feet. Maldonado followed up, and Ayala was on the deck for the first time in his young, fledgling career.

Most importantly, Ayala was badly hurt. He took a short count, and slowly stood up on unsteady and twitching legs. Despite being in a fog, Ayala instinctively looked to his corner, and nonchalantly waved to them that he was ok and to sit down. Even near the brink of defeat and career destruction, Ayala had a fearless, defiant look on his face. His nervous system had suffered a severe shock, and it seemed like Ayala might become a first round knockout victim. The cynical reaction of many of observers was that Ayala would prove to be yet another hot prospect who failed miserably when adversity was unexpectedly manifested.

What happened shortly thereafter is the difference between a prospect and a true contender. El Torito methodically picked his spots, and turned the tide of the bout. He began to tattoo Maldonado with thudding left hooks and vicious right hands. As the first round ended, Ayala was in complete control, and Maldonado was in trouble.

During the next two rounds, Ayala punished Maldonado. Ayala’s attack was a study in controlled, professional fury. Jabs, short, compact left hooks to the body and head. Lead right hands followed by more hooks. Ayala effortlessly slipped Maldonado’s desperate shots, and attacked with increased fury.

In the third round, a hook shot Mario’s mouthpiece several rows into the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Maldonado hit the deck and gradually succumbed to the pounding. The referee stopped the bout after it became clear that Mario didn’t want to continue.

It was both a scary and revealing bout. Tony Ayala Jr. could be hurt and knocked down, but he could rise from the brink of defeat to dominate dangerous opposition. He was no longer a prospect. He definitely wasn’t a one-dimensional front runner who couldn’t handle return fire.

A contender was born.

Over the next twenty months, Ayala roared and ripped his way through tomato cans, journeyman, and legitimate contenders. To this day, I have never seen a fighter so young with as much game as Tony Ayala Jr. At age 18, he could execute a shoulder roll off an incoming right hand and counter with his own right hand as well as James Toney or Evander Holyfield. During infighting, El Torito would sometimes cross his arms in the style of Archie Moore, and then counter with a five-punch head and body combination, pivot, and land another thumping combination that would paralyze and befuddle his opponents.

Tony was uniquely relaxed and vicious in the ring. Barry Tompkins compared him to Jake LaMotta, but with better instincts. Ferdie Pacheco compared him to Roberto Duran because of the relentless ferocity of his attack. It is hard for me to articulate who Ayala reminds me of because he was actually quite original.

As the sordid story of boxing goes, Ayala never fulfilled his potential. On the verge of a title fight with WBA belt holder Davey Moore, Ayala was convicted of rape and was given a 15-35 year sentence in the New Jersey penal system.

We should’ve known. Ayala had been in serious trouble before. He reached an out of court settlement in a sexual assault case when he was only 15-years-old. Just months prior to the aforementioned rape, he was arrested while wandering intoxicated in a neighbor’s home. Like Mike Tyson, Ayala was careening out of control, and nothing could stop the wreck.

When Ayala entered prison in 1983 at the age of twenty, his professional record was 22-0 with 19 KOs.

When Ayala emerged from prison in 1999, I was surprised when he announced a comeback. In his first career, Ayala once admitted that he really didn’t like boxing as much as fans might think. I was also surprised that he would compete near his original weight. Ayala emerged from prison around 200 pounds, but didn’t appear obese.

Many people forget that Bernard Hopkins immediately called Ayala out at that time. Hopkins was still laboring in obscurity while waging war against the establishment. Hopkins’ overtures might’ve been a great marketing coup if Ayala’s impulses superceded his intellect. Ayala smartly ignored Hopkins’ challenge. He knew as well as Bernard that 16 years in prison doesn’t improve a fighter’s ability to slip jabs and hooks.

Ayala’s comeback didn’t go far. Initially, some compared his comeback to that of George Foreman, but the comparison is both unfair and inaccurate. I strongly believe Ayala was at a huge disadvantage compared to the comeback of Fifth Ward George. I have always believed that the level of pure boxing skill tends to increase in inverse proportion to weight. Especially in the contemporary era, the heavyweight division is based more on power than boxing skill. Foreman could easily compensate for slowed reflexes with his freakish power. In contrast, Ayala’s slowed reflexes would be more apparent and detrimental at 154 or 160 pounds. The fighters are quicker and harder to tag cleanly than heavyweights. Therefore, Ayala would automatically experience more difficulty than did Foreman.

Ayala was doomed from the beginning.

As it turned out, Ayala’s comeback record was 9-2 with 8 KOs. In his last fight, Tony appeared listless and a caricature of his former self when he was stopped in 11 rounds by Anthony Bonsante during the spring of 2003. Truthfully, his comeback ended when Yori Boy Campas stopped him in 9 rounds on July 28, 2000. Ayala attempted to rebound, but the demons and trouble of the past insidiously crept back into his world.

Legal troubles started months after Ayala lost to Campas. Ayala was shot when he broke into the home of a young woman who trained at his gym. After much legal haggling, he was placed on 10 years probation.

In another legal scrape, Ayala was falsely accused of rape by a young woman, but spent a few months in jail while fights fell through.

When Ayala was released from prison in 1999, he proclaimed himself to be the original Mike Tyson. The parallels fit in many ways.

In 2004, Ayala was aimless. His boxing career was essentially over, and career prospects appeared elusive. He was arrested for speeding, driving without a license, and possessing drug paraphernalia in his car. Ayala was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.

Ayala is now a two-time loser, and only time will tell how Ayala will fare if he survives the next several years in a Texas prison and is granted yet another shot at freedom.

In classical music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Nicolo Paganini are two of the greatest virtuosos to grace the planet. Both were child prodigies. Mozart was composing music at the age of five. He was most comfortable effortlessly composing the most exquisite operas and symphonies in history. Mozart was the standard by which eccentric geniuses are measured. Outside of his element, he was a careless spendthrift and nonconformist who didn’t possess an iota of common sense or business acumen. He died destitute and was buried in an unmarked grave at the age of 35.

Although not as well known on a pound-for-pound basis, Italian violinist Nicolo Paganini might’ve been better than Mozart. Paganini received classical training early in life, but was mostly self-taught. Reports from that era indicate that Paganini’s passages were so beautiful and awe-inspiring that his audiences would weep in admiration. Many were stunned by his virtuosity, and theorized that he was in a pact with the devil. Today, the best musicians in the world continue to struggle in duplicating his work.

Nicolo’s peccadilloes were also at a different level than Mozart. Like Mozart, he was a spendthrift. Deeper and more disturbing, he was a murderer and a rapist. He was also hopelessly addicted to gambling. Moreover, his wife suffered as Nicolo relentlessly assuaged his sex addiction through countless extramarital affairs, many of which occurred with underage girls. As Paganini’s hubris and instability ultimately hampered his career, it destroyed his life as well. The Catholic Church deemed him a heretic and denied him a Christian burial at his death in 1840 at the age of 57.

Prodigies often don’t last long, nor do they fit into the established norms and mores of society.

Tony Ayala Jr. was the prototype of the prodigy gone wrong. Like Mozart and Paganini, he started his profession early in life, and his skill set improved at an unnatural rate. Robbie Epps lost to Ayala on a first round knockout in 1982. He was once a sparring partner of Ayala, and a family adversary. Epps described Ayala’s bizarre and precocious development in Berger’s excellent article.

“I first saw Torito compete in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium in 1972. I couldn’t believe it. Nine years old he was, and he was fighting a guy with a mustache and a tattoo—a 15-year-old man. It was the first time I’d ever seen a kid that young whose punches made a thudding sound when they landed. He had that squatty body of his, but he beat the hell out of the mustached guy. Stopped him in the third round. It was amazing.”

Ayala stunned and amazed Epps, just as he enthralled fans at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio with his curious blend of barely controlled fury and advanced ring savvy.

The downfall of Tony Ayala Jr. has been explained in many ways. It is well known that Ayala was pushed hard in his development, grew up too fast, and was raised in a tough environment. Ayala was exposed to drugs and alcohol during the onset of puberty. Heroin was one of Ayala’s toughest adversaries. El Torito later admitted that he was actually detoxing from heroin before some of his most notable performances. Additionally, it is well known that Ayala was molested repeatedly as a child. Some have speculated that the unfortunate nature of Ayala’s upbringing contributed heavily to his self-destruction and criminal behavior.

In truth, the real professional tragedy of Tony Ayala Jr. is that he was blessed with unusual gifts he didn’t maximize. He simply made the wrong choices, and destroyed his life along with the lives of others. He could’ve been more than a contender. He probably would’ve become at least a good belt holder and might’ve engaged in memorable battles with Hearns, Duran, Hagler, Leonard and Mugabi. At his possible zenith, he might’ve defeated the best, changed the history of boxing, and transcended the sport.

From a different angle, another tragedy looms. In watching interviews with Ayala, he is actually well-spoken and intelligent. Tony Ayala Jr. could’ve helped a lot of people. Tony could’ve emerged from prison, and counseled those who suffered from the residual effects of sexual abuse and drug addiction. He could’ve helped ex-convicts through the precarious web of integrating back into society. He could’ve trained fighters, and helped them overcome the pitfalls of both success and failure. In the end, Tony Ayala Jr. simply chose to self-destruct instead of taking the opportunity of freedom and turning it into the multi-faceted redemption story he was fully capable of accomplishing.

Tony Ayala Jr. was the top prospect in boxing history. He was blessed with abilities only the greatest fighters in history can fathom. He is yet another example in a long line of sad stories in our complex and tough business. His story isn’t tragic because he was manipulated by promoters and managers. The legacy and tragedy of Tony Ayala Jr. is that he couldn’t conquer his inner demons. He simply failed to transfer and channel his innate abilities and intelligence into the ultimate professional and personal success he seemed destined to attain.

Articles of 2005

In Boxing News: Floyd Mayweather An All-Time Great, Valuev & More

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A Shot of Boxing on the Last Day of the Year

The Guardian reports that talks have already taken place between Nicolay Valuev‘s co-promoters – Don King and Wilfried Sauerland – and Danny Williams‘ promoter Frank Warren for Nicolay Valuev to face Danny Williams. I’d suggest Danny Williams needs to worry about Matt Skelton (who Williams is reportedly scheduled to fight in February) before he entertains notions of facing the Beast From The East.

The Mirror in the UK looks forward to a big year in boxing for 2006. The Mirror considers what the future might bring for Joe Calzaghe, Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton, among others.

The Parksville Qualicum News has an interesting column on the travails of former Canadian Super Middleweight title holder Mark Woolnough. Woolnough’s career turned controversial – as widely reported in the Canadian press – at the beginning of this year when Woolnough and four other men were charged with manslaughter and assault after a fight outside a Parksville nightclub. The case returns to court next month. It’s an interesting read, as Woolnough is still looking to the future with hope.

Our own Marc Lichtenfeld provides plenty of food for thought with his Top Ten Wish List for boxing in the New Year. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but what really jumped out for me is Lichtenfeld’s opinion that a win over Zab Judah could have Floyd Mayweather knocking on the door of all-time great status. Seems to me this might be jumping the gun a little. Or is Marc right? Will it soon be time to call Floyd Mayweather Jr. an all-time great?

(More Boxing News Links at TheSweetScience.com)

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Articles of 2005

ShoBox Friday Night Fights

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Hot bantamweight prospect Raul “The Cobra” Martinez heads back to Chicago next Friday night as he is featured in the co-main event of SHOBOX “THE NEW GENERATION,” an action packed evening of professional boxing presented by Dominic Pesoli’s 8 Count Productions,’ HOME OF THE BEST IN CHICAGO BOXING, Kathy Duva’s Main Events Inc., along with Miller Lite and TCF Bank.

The two-time national amateur champion sporting a perfect 12-0 record with 9 knockouts, six of which have come in the first round,  will take on Colombian Andres “Andy Boy” Ledesma, 13-1 (8 KOs) in a scheduled eight round bout.

Speaking after a training session at his home gym in Georgetown, Texas, Martinez said, “I’m truly looking forward to returning to Chicago. The fans were terrific in September, they were very supportive from the start of the fight,” an internationally televised first round knockout of Miguel Martinez on September 16th at the Aragon Ballroom.

Regarding his upcoming fight with Ledesma, “The Cobra” said, “I haven’t seen him fight, although I understand he’s fought at higher weights and will be naturally bigger than me. I’ve had great training for this fight and feel very confident. I really haven’t left the gym in months, just taking off Sunday’s and even then I get my running in. My thinking is that fights are won in the gym and complete preparation is the key.”

When asked about his being mentioned by Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer as one of the top prospect’s in the boxing world the 23-year-old San Antonio native said, ‘It’s a great compliment, but I still have much work to do. I want to be a champion for Main Events like Fernando Vargas and Arturo Gatti. But like Fernando said while he was in town, ‘be patient, work hard and your time will come.’”

Finishing the conversation, Martinez said, “I’m looking forward to starting out this year with a bang. I might have a couple less fights than the seven I had in 2005, but I’m looking to stepping up the competition, move up to ten-rounders and climb in the rankings.”

Headlining the evening is a ten-round welterweight showdown between boxing’s hottest prospect, unbeaten Joel Julio of Monteria, Columbia, and Ugandan native Roberto “The Doctor” Kamya. Julio, turning 21 years old the day before the fight, is 25-0 with 22 knockouts, twelve of which have come in the first two rounds. Kamya, now fighting out of West Palm Beach, Florida is 15-5 with four knockouts.

Tickets, starting at $30, are on sale in advance by calling 312-226-5800. Cicero Stadium is located at 1909 S. Laramie, at the corner of 19th and Laramie, just ten minutes south of the Eisenhower Expressway and ten minutes north of the Stevenson Expressway. Doors for this evening will open at 6pm with the first bell at 7pm.

The full bout lineup for the evening is:

Joel Julio vs. Roberto Kamya, ten rounds, welterweights

Raul Martinez vs. Andres Ledesma, eight rounds, bantamweights

Miguel Hernandez vs. Butch Hajicek, eight rounds, middleweights

David Pareja vs. Derek Andrews, eight rounds, light heavyweights

Mike Gonzales vs. Tony Kinney, four rounds, lightweights

Omar Reyes vs. Luis Navarro, five rounds, featherweights

Reynaldo Reyes vs. Ricardo Swift, four rounds, middleweights

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Articles of 2005

Pick ‘Em: Plenty of Big Upcoming Fights in ’06

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Here’s the early call on many top matches scheduled for the first half of 2006: Happy New Year!

As the new calendar dawns, there are already a considerable amount of premium bouts on the horizon. Things don’t look to be bogged down by undetermined championships next year. In many cases the scheduled face-offs involve the best fighters in the division, or at least close enough for general bragging rights. If anybody else with proper qualifications signs up to force the issue, all the better.

It can be argued that some pairings could have taken place within a more optimal timeframe, or that some headliners carry distracting baggage, but there are certainly enough heavy hitters on deck. That nobody can deny.

It doesn’t matter whether one considers the proverbial glass half empty or half full; there’s still the same amount of juice in the vessel. It’s nice to know that even with a high number of cancellations, there will still be plenty of important contenders on tap.

With elite fighters in weight divisions from top to bottom on the agenda, it’s an equivalent to what fans in more mainstream sports expect in a consistent championship format.

Baseball fans can almost always count on a World Series. Some hoops fanatics say too much attention to playoffs distracts unmotivated NBA teams during their regular season. In college, they project Sweet Sixteens. Football fans know there’s always a Super Bowl ahead to raise advertising dollars and test the USA’s halftime morals.

So too, there is method in boxing’s current madness.

The midnight crystal ball hasn’t even been unveiled in Times Square and there are already a number of potential thrillers scheduled. Most feature contrasting personalities that almost guarantee going along for the ride will be worthwhile. Any subsequent drops will probably be cheered.

Don King jumps right out of the auld lang gate with a January 7th Showtime card featuring Zab Judah against Carlos Baldomir and Jean-Marc Mormeck in a cruiserweight unification against O’Neil Bell.

It will be the upset of the year, bar none, if Baldomir can tip the applecart before Judah gets to his scheduled super-showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. Meanwhile, Mormeck is emerging and should keep on rolling against Bell, who can expose him if he’s not for real.

The proverbial Big Bang starts with a January 21st rematch of one of the finest fights of ‘05, when Erik Morales goes against Manny Pacquaio for the second time on HBO pay per view. The fact that Morales was upset by Zahir Raheem after beating Pacquaio was no real loss in box-office luster. Artful Raheem will get a spot on the undercard and hope his patience is rewarded.

Everyone figures Morales and Pacquaio will pick up where they left off. Like the first time, the rematch is a pick’em contest. Management distractions and glove restrictions cited as Pacquaio’s previous problems won’t matter this time. The two are very evenly matched and their styles will make for another whapathon. It could come down to corners, where Freddie Roach gets the edge since Morales will have a new trainer for the first time since replacing his father after the Raheem lesson.

February features four of the game’s most enduring attractions, in a pair of crucial matchups.

First up, Showtime presents the Jose Luis Castillo – Diego Corrales tiebreaker from El Paso on Feb 4th. This is another pick ‘em pair, barring any sideshow. In boxing that disclaimer may be a stretch, since the sideshow is part of the act and the charm.

As far as action inside the strands goes, every round these guys have fought has been great. There’s no reason to think that pattern won’t continue. Regarding the result, Castillo keeps the pressure on as he did in the second fight, but he’ll walk into trouble from a more reserved Corrales. We still don’t know which coin to flip.

February also holds a better late than never affair between two perennial favorites as Shane Mosley collides with Fernando Vargas on the 25th.  This fight could lead to a winning ticket in the Golden Boy sweepstakes for a fall bonanza against Oscar De La Hoya.

Vargas has been in tougher recently, based on comparable strength of opposition stats, but he’s seen little action. What weight they enter the ring at may have a lot to do with the result. If Vargas has to struggle at the scale, Mosley might have the battle in the bag after round nine.

It’s hard to imagine Mosley getting stopped early, but Vargas doesn’t have to hurt him, he just has to knock him down three times. With natural size, he may be able to do just that, but Mosley would have to box uncharacteristically flat.

Unless Mosley decides to heed the crowd, the most likely scenario is that Shane plays it safe, picks a few shots, and stays away enough to capture a comfortable, dull decision. An unbowed Vargas maintains his fan base but not his bettors.

March both comes in and goes out as a lion.

On March 4th Joe Calzaghe welcomes Jeff Lacy to Manchester UK for what may be the biggest blowout of the headlining bunch. Calzaghe gets the chance to prove his considerable home-based reputation once and for all, but if Lacy creams him as we expect, that glossy record will be severely tarnished.

All Calzaghe has to do is make a respectable stand, but that’s no small task against the rising Lacy. A motivated Calzaghe, songs of England ringing in his ears, could pull a big surprise if he can exploit Lacy’s relatively limited technical development, but that’s a longshot indeed.

It looks like Lacy can get by on power alone. He could soon emerge as a pound-for-pound leader. Old Joe’s hometown advantage will last about two left hooks.

March 11th has the Ides of history to beware for at least one old lion, with farewell (we’ll see) fireworks featuring Roy Jones Jr. against Bernard Hopkins. Less than two years ago they were considered untouchable all time greats. Now between them they’ve lost five in a row.

This goodbye fight is contracted at light heavyweight, for what seems like an oldies night. Hopkins is the senior at age 41 to Jones’s 37, but Roy seems more the grandpa figure, last seen hanging on against Antonio Tarver. Youth, as it were here, will prevail.

This bout was signed quickly as each principal, usually sticklers for favorable contract clauses, agreed to parity in a demonstration of businessman first and fighter second. They may both expect easy marks. How much the boys have left by the time they get down to business remains to be seen. The history books will show this as a climactic career bout between Hall of Famers.

At 175 pounds, Hopkins may be in for rude awakening. Jones may have been more thoroughly outfought recently, but he was rumbling with bigger, tougher men than Jermain Taylor or Howard Eastman. Respectable as he is, Taylor still falls short of the level of Tarver, at least for now. The difference is still fifteen pounds less pop.

It will be quite a feat if Hopkins can stay in the fight, even at Jones’s advanced age. Our stars point to Jones winning in overwhelming fashion.

On March 18th, James Toney meets Hasim Rahman in another pairing of seasoned war-horses.

Toney and Rahman already had their introductions, when they brawled in Mexico during a WBC gathering to bestow Rahman’s new belt. Between formalities, Toney got married, which could bring up the old questions about carnal training.

Let’s hope when they meet in the ring, they restore some of the fire missing from the heavyweights in ‘05.  Toney might have an edge in recent form, but Rahman shows fine tuning he previously lacked. The winner might get newly “crowned’ Nicolai Valuev, an easy payday outside Germany.

Rahman could be the heavyweight that finally makes Toney look like a blown up middleweight. But anything less than a top effort will probably lead to embarrassing night for the Rock and give Toney solid claim to being the true heavyweight champ.

This might not be the most artful fight of the new season, but it could well be the most grueling, and the closest. He who’s faced the better big boys gets the nod. Advantage Rahman.

March 25 features Marco Antonio Barrera, probably the strongest overall claimant to 130 pound honors. The likely opponent is said to be always tough Jesus Chavez.

Chavez seemed rejuvenated when he met Leavander Johnson, but Johnson’s tragic death may have taken some of the steam out of thoughtful Chavez, said to have received Johnson’s family blessing to continue in Leavander’s name. That could mean a lot of inspiration. Either way, if he does meet Chavez, who hung tough with one arm against Erik Morales, Barrera won’t get any slack. The Fates say Chavez, whose wife recently served in Iraq, is a live, live underdog.

Another clash to be King of the Hill finds Floyd Mayweather Jr, arguably the game’s finest practitioner, bumping heads with Zab Judah, one of very few boxers who rivals Mayweather in speed, skills, and brashness.

Their hoedown, scheduled for April 8th, is one of the top pound-for-pound pairings in recent years. Judah will need a career best performance to have a chance of victory. That’s not to say he can’t pull it off, but currently Mayweather is in a different galaxy in terms of punching power. Slow-motion replays may be the only way to follow the flying fists once these two whirlwinds unload.

Mayweather should be around a 4-1 favorite. Judah is good enough to make taking the odds an attractive proposition, since that’s probably as good of odds as one is likely to see on Floyd for a while. Mayweather will stop Judah in his tracks.

The first half of next year is set to conclude with the star power of Oscar De La Hoya, probably against noteworthy foil Ricardo Mayorga on May 6. There could be some snags before a contract is finalized, but if it comes off count on Mayorga for promotional sound bite nastiness. One of the questions is whether or not he’ll be able to get under Oscar’s skin, and it might actually be entertaining to see the classy, model perfect De La Hoya show he’s human and freak out against the Nicaraguan maniac.

Mayorga may have burnt his best bridges already. De La Hoya has not only the boxing skill to negate Mayorga’s offense, but enough power to end it early. If Mayorga rushes in and causes a cut, De La Hoya might get ruffled enough to duck into defense and Mayorga could get a decision that goes to the cards after six rounds or so. It will be wild for as long as it lasts.

Pro boxing, like many sports, had its share of problems during 2005, but there were also many positives. Most notably, as usual, was superior and inspiring action inside the strands. Unless there’s a mass freeze-up at the top, early 2006 figures to see decisive interaction among many well-known fighters.

If even fifty per cent of the aforementioned pairings come to fruition, it’s a strong likelihood the upcoming year has at least one very positive half. Arturo Gatti, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Margarito, Brian Viloria, and Shannon Briggs, to name a few, are also on deck. No matter how you chose to look at or measure mass qualities, there’s still just as much good to be seen.

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